Photo credit: Wellcome Collection
The Rise of Data Journalism
by Emilia Ruzicka
It's no secret that data has become an unavoidable part of daily life. Between online messaging, electronic business records, social media, and other forms of both passive and active data collection, our personal, everyday stories are chronicled by the internet of things around us. However, we don't engage with those stories with energy and resources proportional to the amount of content and insights they contain. In response to this gap in our histories, a new field of storytelling has emerged to help guide the flow from data to the public: data journalism. Data journalism lies at the intersection of many fields, including data science, statistics, computer science, graphic design, user experience design, creative nonfiction writing, media production, archival research, and much more. Its driving purpose is to communicate the stories that data tells in an accessible way, allowing those without extensive data literacy to understand them.
My introduction to data journalism came during my first year at Brown when Dean Maud Mandel (now President Mandel at Williams College) encouraged me to indulge my curiosities while taking her class, Living the Open Curriculum. I was pursuing a concentration in statistics but realized that I wanted to have a career that had a more direct positive impact on the people around me. My passions for math and design led me to focus intently on data visualization, which in turn became data communications, and finally data journalism. Bringing together courses from departments like Public Health, Applied Mathematics, Visual Art, English, and even a class at the Rhode Island School of Design, I built my independent concentration in data journalism.
The true origin of data journalism is difficult to pinpoint, as various historical examples of data communication exist, including visualizations by W.E.B. DuBois and Florence Nightingale, but the modern field of data journalism exploded in 2008. Nate Silver, who had previously been a baseball statistician, founded the site FiveThirtyEight, which reported news primarily on sports and political data at first, but soon expanded to include all the topics covered by a traditional news site and is now owned by ABC News. Silver went on to write the book The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don't in 2012 that describes the discipline of making predictions from data and combining unique data sources to hone those predictions. It emphasizes the importance of clearly communicating statistics to the public rather than making vague statements that do not contain numerical evidence.
When FiveThirtyEight was just a blip on the map, David McCandless, a journalist for various publications including Wired magazine, founded the data blog Information is Beautiful, which focuses on creating visualizations of data on topics ranging from movies to foreign policy and everything in between. The visualizations began as static infographics, but have more recently been interactive, allowing the viewer to notice different relationships within the data depending on the settings they choose to turn on and off at the time. McCandless has since published two books, Knowledge is Beautiful and Information is Beautiful. Both volumes tell the stories of a multitude of datasets using written words paired with unique visualizations.
Since 2008, data journalism has only grown larger. News organizations use data to predict political elections, sports sites invent new statistical methods for evaluating top players, and scientific data across a range of health and environmental topics is increasingly cited in stories both online and in print. Because integrating data into our daily information intake seems unavoidable, it is a natural step to formalize the study of digesting that data and presenting it to others in a comprehensible manner.
Data journalism is now taught extensively at the graduate level, including master's degree programs in the United States and the United Kingdom. Data literacy courses have become commonplace in undergraduate education, including here at Brown University. The Data Science Initiative (DSI) teaches a curriculum focused on integrating data science with a variety of other fields, like ethics (DATA 0080), computer science (DATA 0200), and teaching and consulting (DATA 1150). Though these courses are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, they equip students to keep up with our ever-changing world of data and understand how they can not only dive deeper into data's stories but also communicate them to those around them.
Emilia Ruzicka graduated from Brown University in May 2021 with a degree in data journalism and began working as a Research Associate for Stacker.com in June 2021. Through the DSI's Data Science Fellows program, Emilia has gained experience in data analysis, visualization, and reporting. Her goal is "to always make engaging and accessible content that audiences crave." In Emilia's spare time, she enjoys swing dancing, baking, and visiting museums. Read more about Emilia on her personal website or read her senior thesis on data journalism, here.